We’ve heard the news. In 17 of 50 large US cities, more high school students are dropping than are graduating according to a study conducted by the highly reputable America's Promise Alliance. Even though reporting on the study was misleading, with much of the media portraying it to reflect all urban areas, not only 17 out of 50, the problem is real and extensive nonetheless.
While it’s a shame that the media has to hype the news, thereby detracting from the facts, the facts alone are serious enough to warrant action. And if we truly seek to solve this problem there’s only one practical answer that comes in the form of a two-part solution; instilling values in our children and bringing real and concrete improvement to our schools.
Dropout and truancy affect society at large. High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to commit crime, according to a 2003 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education. Other research shows that teens who are no longer in school or are truant are far more likely to fall prey to drug abuse, possess a decreased sense of self worth and are more apt to poverty. And while this is not the case among teens who leave school for steady, full time work, very few students who drop out of school transition immediately into the workforce.
The way to solve any problem is to analyze its causes and propose common sense solutions that don’t exacerbate it further. In this case, the educational crisis stems from three factors. First, many urban children are brought up without guidance and direction. Second, children have been raised to “do what feels good,” with a focus on instant gratification and without regard for what’s best long term (even if this was not the parents’ intent, children often learn by example). And last, the school system has stopped stimulating academic growth and fails to deal with the student’s specific needs. As a result, school has become a boring drudgery and a chore that is, in the mind of the student, best gotten rid of.
To correct the first two causes we need to motivate parents to take an interest in the upbringing of their children. To correct the final cause, real and meaningful improvements must be brought to the school system. Such improvements should not consist of pie in the sky ideas put forward by sandcastle academics (those in academia who contemplate the building of sandcastles upon clouds of marshmallow to cure all of society’s ills).
Education must be motivational and mentoring to students. Teachers need to be aware of what motivates each student, where his or her problems lie and then be given sufficient leeway to work with them. The teacher must also be motivated (by way of rewards and incentives, overtime pay, etc.) to spend after hour time with students in need.
To correct the first two problems, parents need simply to ask themselves whether the cost of increased involvement in the upbringing of their children is worth protecting their future and maybe even their lives. If parents then choose to get involved, a good start would be to spend time helping their children with homework or at least talking with them about it and taking an active interest in their studies. Parents also need to discuss with their children the importance of staying in school and the tangible benefits an education can provide as well as the real pitfalls that are associated with a lack thereof. All of this must be done in a mentoring and caring way as opposed to a badgering one. If they fail to get through, parents can involve third party mentors, with the ultimate goal of being able to motivate their children by themselves within a short period of time, a task made easier once the child has been taught the importance of education and responsibility.
The last root cause of the dropout problem is harder to fix, though if qualified teachers were left to make the decisions it would not be. What makes improvement difficult is the massive bureaucracy within the public school system, starting with academics who dictate their latest experimental theories as cure alls and ending with teachers unions that, while accomplishing some good and being necessary on a certain level, often put forward proposals that are neither in the best interest of teachers or of students.
For example, standardized testing was a noble first start and it is a shame that those who proposed it are often maligned for political reasons. It helped end the cycle of graduating illiterates. But no matter how noble the intentions, it is at best a partial answer if an answer at all.
A better answer would be to train teachers to motivate and work with each needing student. Teachers or in-school tutors should discreetly provide help after class hours to students in need and this should be a necessary component of the educational system. Moreover, teachers should be given texts and training that make lessons vibrant and inspiring. And as is key to any successful education program, teachers should educate students, stressing the “three Rs” and other needed studies, and refrain from social indoctrination.
Simply put, schools should be a place where learning flourishes, respect and good behavior are expected and social engineering is left out of the mix. While the last part is the goal of most educational systems outside of California, in practice teachers often do get into heated discussions on socio-political issues and such acts serve to lessen respect for them in the eyes of students and their control of the classroom in general.
A further way to increase graduation rates is to teach students the tangible difference that an education can make in their lives. To this end, students should be taught business skills by teachers or by outside volunteer professionals subject to their school’s approval.
Of note is the work of Junior Achievement, an organization that has recruited hundreds of volunteers from the business community to teach practical business skills to students.
Still, though teaching business skills will increase a student’s motivation, teens who are already contemplating quitting may not see a connection between business abilities and the need to continue their education. To get through to these students, a course must be taught that clearly outlines the tangible benefits of staying in school and of avoiding crime in ways that teens can readily understand. See the last paragraph of this column for one such option that is currently available.
Implementing the above improvements is easier said than done when dealing with a multi-layered bureaucracy. While this must not be used as an excuse, it is a reality. A reality that will only likely be overcome by forcing the hands of public school boards through supporting school choice, opening private schools to all children through grants, especially for students in schools that have a high failure or dropout rates or that fail their standard evaluations.
Enacting improvements in public schools is hard to do without outside pressure. One need look no further than the example of the legendary Superintendent Dr. Frank Till of the Broward County, Florida School Board (one of the largest in the nation) to see how hard it is to improve a system that’s stuck in reverse.
After drastically improving the rankings of Broward schools, in large part by making teachers focus on the individual needs of each student, Till was fired in a controversial 5-4 vote for not acquiescing to certain board members’ wishes in matters that were entirely unrelated to education. This was in spite of support from the teachers union, parent groups and other prominent supporters for Till to remain on the job. The school system is broken and nothing will force it to improve other than the availability of a quality alternative in the form of private schools.
School choice is the only motivating factor that can take a stagnant and insulated public system and finally force it to better serve our youth. Until this is accomplished, parents who are able to should seek to send their children to qualified and well run private schools. At present this may come at a significant cost, but incentives and reductions are usually available. Besides, fewer investments, if any, can be more important.
As outlined above, the best way to prevent truancy, dropping out and delinquency is by giving students compelling reasons to stay in school. To this end I’ve developed a teaching guide for teens that explains the tangible and practical differences that education, financial common sense, long term thinking and volunteerism make in their lives, as well as the pitfalls that stem from quitting school and delinquency.
The course was approved by the Superintendent’s Committee of a major school board and has been used to teach honors students and at risk youth. It also contains sound financial information that will be useful to parents and to educators. I will provide the course free to any CFP reader who requests a copy by email. We all need to do whatever we can to improve the situation in our schools. Hopefully, this small effort will be joined by many efforts of yours.